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It seems so simple. I was in a car crash, and then I started noticing aches and pains that I didn’t have before. It makes sense that I was injured in the crash—even my doctor says so—that’s enough to prove the case, right?

This is a common—and completely logical—perception of many accident victims. And then the attorney starts talking and things suddenly don’t seem so straight-forward anymore. Suddenly the issues isn’t “I was fine before the accident and now I’m not” and instead the issue is “legal proof” or “legal cause” or “proximate cause”. So, what is all of this about? How can we de-mystify all of this lawyer-speak?

If you are the victim of a car accident, or some other type of personal injury, then the topic of “causation” is certain to come up at some point. “Causation” is one of the elements of a negligence lawsuit and it exists to make sure that the person you are suing actually caused your injury. Makes sense so far. But, the law says that there are two parts to this causation question: “cause in fact” and “proximate cause”.

The first one—cause in fact—is easy. It’s the conclusion that every plaintiff comes to: I was fine before the accident and now I’m not, therefore the defendant must be responsible. Or you can think about it the way it’s taught to first-year law students: but for the defendant’s actions, I wouldn’t be injured today. This is where the doctor’s opinion is helpful because it establishes a link between the accident and the injury.

But cause in fact is only part of the analysis. The other part of proving causation is called “proximate cause” and here’s where what we know about cause and effect doesn’t really matter anymore. Instead, the question becomes: when the defendant behaved irresponsibly, was it foreseeable that I would be injured? The best way to understand this is to understand that one of the goals of negligence law is to allow plaintiffs to recover for injuries or accidents that the defendant could have predicted and then prevented.

That is what “legal cause” or “proximate cause” is all about and its why at some point so many negligence cases start becoming more complex.

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